Generation 'Xi': Marketing in China's 'youth-conomy'

SHANGHAI - The belief that the length of a generation is defined by ten-year spans is making less sense in China as technological and societal changes take place every five or even three years, setting the stage for 'Generation Xi' (习世代)—youths growing up in the current Xi Jinping era, and altering marketing principles along with it.

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Create a mental image of the average Chinese teenager. What do you see? A mindless zombie trapped in the enticing screens of modern technology and extreme pressure from the gaokao college entrance exams? What if we were to tell you that from the midst of this new generation comes the rise of a familiar yet baffling consumer base that needs to be re-studied?

From this need stems a youth-marketing alliance (年轻盟) set up this April by Renren that is willing to, for the first time, cooperatively discover the marketing possibilities within this target audience. For middle-aged marketers, it does seem like a whole ordeal to examine the psychological profiles of today's youths, given the perennial 'generation gap issue'.

But are today's young people really that different? Yes and no.

On the surface, there is little reason to conclude that the average member of 'Generation Xi' is dramatically different from previous generations. Stephen Drummond, who is responsible for Coca-Cola’s integrated marketing in both China and South Korea, enlightened the audience at a Mandarin-speaking Renren event late June. "Young people are merely the products of their socio-economic environment, and while there exists differences in their methods of expression, similarities far outweigh differences, even across the different city tiers in China," he said.

"At the same time, we are in a constantly changing environment,” summarised Drummond on his ideas. Local Chinese media also phrases it in a 'punnier' fashion: "We live in the People’s Republic of Change". Hence, a sense of uncertainty unifies teenagers around the world, and a paradox is thus born. The Chinese youths long for expression and identification, but at the same time, they do not have what it takes to fully express themselves, he said.

Drummond raised one of the underlying questions of youth-marketing: How can a product become a method to express themselves?

A vehicle for self-expression

In its latest summer campaign in China, Coca-Cola utilised a way to make its products to do exactly that. The Isobar-conceived 'Musicon' campaign involved placing lyrics of songs from pop culture onto Coca-Cola bottles. It is "an attempt to be fundamentally youth-driven," explained Drummond.

Coca-Cola’s campaign carries the '70-20-10 media principle': 70 represents the percentage of basic, known media forms such as television; 20 the newer mediums; 10 encompasses the percentage of media platforms that brands deem as experimental: social media. Social media was once determined as a part of that 10 per cent, but studies into campaigns such as the Musicon prove that it has risen rapidly to become part of the 70 per cent.

To make matters even more complicated, a cloak of mysteriousness is brought by media fragmentation, particularly serious for Generation Xi, who face an overwhelming amount of media choices. Moreover, the popularity of social media is perplexing for many businesses stranded in outdated modes of thinking, with some paying the price for not having information readily available at their fingertips to keep up with Chinese youths nowadays.

In reality, creative ideas may not be driven by the youths but by an older demographic inside brand structures. “Coca-Cola’s case is a portrayal of the capabilities of the post-80’s and -90’s,” stated Raymond Fang (方晓晖), consumer insights manager at Kimberly-Clark China. “Such ideas are definitely not from those of the 60’s generation."

The world's fifth-largest 'nation'

Simply put, a gap of decades can cause "massive" differences in both thoughts and actions. The 'Generation Xi' does not see themselves with the same generational consistency as previous generations in China, obviously. In fact, they are evolving along with their environment. China is a country that looks forward rather than backward. Jane Lin-Baden (林真), CEO of Isobar China, pointed out that an interesting phenomenon has occurred in which China is no longer a China that is concerned about other countries’ perceptions of it, but the other way around.

According to China's sixth census in 2010, the 16-26 year-old population accounted for 17 per cent of the country's total population. With 225 million people in absolute numbers, this makes a nation-sized market that has emerged as the "fifth world power" (behind China, India, America, Indonesia), pointed out Renren chairman and CEO Joseph Chen (陈一舟).

Yes, there is power in numbers, and accompanied by education and urbanisation, there is a now a proportional increase in spending power and decision-making power among the younger population, effecting renewed advertiser attention in this youth-economy. 

Field-trips organised by Renren to four universities in Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Guangzhou found that today's Chinese youths do not have a notion about set monthly budgets. That is not to say they do not have an allowance—about 1500 RMB a month, but this is just the tip of the iceberg, Chen said. In addition to regular expenses on rent, gadgets, or girlfriend/boyfriend costsmoney for extra purchases are requested from their parents, with threats to sell their kidneys as a joke if rejected.

“This is a remarkable era,” remarked Arkr Group managing partner, Aaron Zhang (张璐). “An era of the internet where opportunities are given to everyone, hence granting even students far more chances at creation." While generations before indulged in fantasies or daydreams, the new Generation Xi has both the ability and the motivation to act upon their ideas.

"Our point of view is the Xi era is going to start a new cultural phase for China, and youths exposed to this period for the next five to eight years are shaping a different cultural identity, which will become the mainstream later," added Lin-Baden, whose team's research coined the 'Generation Xi' (习世代) term.

Cradle-to-grave pipe dream 

While we're in the mood for a conversation on eras, dynasties and generations, let's look at the expression 'cradle-to-grave'. It describes the emphasis on forging lifelong relationships between a brand and its consumers, a topic explored in Renren's youth-marketing summit where Campaign Asia-Pacific's Jenny Chan (陳詠欣) participated as a panel moderator (see above video). The ultimate dream for many marketers, the cradle-to-grave strategy may be too idealistic in the puzzling Chinese market. Many examples have shown that brands are merely able to target specific demographic bases rather than follow through an entire generation for a lifetime—even iconic brands like Apple.

Fang believes the concept does not mean that "we only focus on a specific group of people without any flexibility”. Rather, brands should master the grasp of a core target of consumers and hope that other groups around them can be influenced. Apple, once again, was discussed. Its brand effects on those non-core groups are significant: from iPads given to kindergarten kids and the older generation of parents, Apple’s brand influence is borrowed from that of its primary customer base.

Deadly sins of youth marketing

Sins come at a price—the judgment of a youthful target audience, who can be brutally honest with less regard for brand loyalty. Zafka Zhang (张安定), co-founder cum chief strategy officer of China Youthology, spelled out some dangers if warnings go unheeded by marketers.

The ever-changing youth culture has made many marketers nervous in their attempts in following its trends. After all, how do you follow something you cannot even begin to understand? Many brands make the mistake of treating youths as targets of adulation and placing them onto a completely different pedestal from those of other generations. However, that is an outdated concept, Zhang said.

Young people now talk to their elders on a more equal standing. The forms of respect once given to elders by virtue of seniority are now only given to those that they trust, so the same concept applies in youth marketing, he said. It no longer matters if a brand is a so-called “youth-oriented brand” but rather, if its brand attitude is trustworthy.

That means less empty words from brands and their star spokespersons, who appear to frequently use the 'achieve your dreams' angle in youth marketing. Can empty words rouse the youths to action, whether cause-related or consumption-related? Zhang's answer is, it is okay to talk about dreams, but it is not enough to take the easy way out and have famous celebrities talk about dreams. It is imperative to take action to fulfil those dreams, which are really real demands in real life.

'Coolness' vs Quests for Meaning

The taken-for-granted 'fact' that the post-90’s generation has a general need to be different is wrong, said Zhang. That is merely brushing the surface of the stereotypical teenage attitude. “Rather, we are hoping to find a sense of belongingness, be it in our emotions or identity," said Eric Cheung (张鑫), president of AIESEC’s mainland China headquarters, speaking on behalf of his peers.

What marketers must do is to dive into the truths hidden behind the superficial aspects of Chinese teenagers. It is simplistic to believe that all the Generation Xi cares for is to be 'cool', he said. Why do teenagers do the things they do? Why are skateboards suddenly popular after a five-year decline? We are not even close to the answers, he said. Look under the surface, he advised, at the psychological pieces that form the bigger puzzle. What if 'coolness' is actually a search for identity and meaning?

Someone seems to have impressed upon the post-60’s and -70’s that the 80’s and 90’s generations are of an alien species, so much so it paves the way to arrogance that separates brands from its consumers. You may not notice it, but speaking to young consumers not as individuals or as equals is the worst sin, said Zhang.

It’s not them, it’s you

Why are our advertisements not moving the audience? Many brands have troubled themselves with this question countless times. Guess what? The problem is not them, but you. Ma Chao (马超), chief representative of OneShow China, illustrated this misconception with two car ads shown to Chinese advertising students whom OneShow interviewed face-to-face.

The first was of that of a famous spokesperson driving a car down a winding road (sounds familiar?), appealing to a more successful audience. The second was Volkswagon’s 2011 Super Bowl commercial featuring a kid in a Darth Vadar mask attempting to use the ‘force’ on a washer, a dryer, the family dog, a baby doll, and finally, his dad’s Volkswagon Passat, which roared to life much to his surprise.

The students were asked which advertisement they preferred and found more memorable. Almost all chose the latter. Then they were questioned on which they would find suitable for clients and the Chinese market? And 80 per cent picked the former in an ironic reply. Ma said this is the fault of advertising agencies who have been pandering to clients.

Take it from Xi, who has been prohibiting “empty rhetoric” in official speeches since he came to office. If he were to be in advertising, he would not be pleased.

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